By B.R.P. Bhaskar
With the resurfacing of the Suryanelli sex scandal case, which has rocked Kerala off and on since 1996, Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman P.J. Kurien has come under a cloud of suspicion again.The case arose out of the abduction and serial rape of a 16-year-old schoolgirl of Suryanelli in Kerala by 42 men over 41 days in January-February 1996. One after another three police teams investigated the case and none of them named Kurien as an accused.
The government appointed a special prosecutor and set up a special court to render speedy justice. In September 2000, the fast-track sessions court sentenced 35 accused to various terms of rigorous imprisonment. One accused, Dharmarajan, an advocate, who had allegedly taken the captive girl to several places in Kerala and Tamil Nadu and presented her to others, was absconding at the time. He was arrested, tried and given a long jail term two years later.
In 2005, the high court acquitted all, including Dharmarajan, of the rape charge, holding the girl had completed 16 years, which was the age of consent, and she was not an unwilling partner. It, however, upheld Dharmarajan's conviction on a charge of sex trade and gave him a jail term of only five years.
The state's appeal against the high court verdict lay unattended in the Supreme Court for more than seven years until a women's organisation drew attention to it in the wake of the national outrage over the Delhi gang-rape.
On taking it up, the apex court expressed shock over the high court verdict, quashed it and sent the case back to it for fresh determination within six months.
All the accused in the case were traced by the investigators on the basis of information given by the girl after the abductors freed her. While the investigation was on, she saw a picture of Kurien, then a minister of state in the central government, in a newspaper and told police that he was among her tormentors. Inquiries showed that he was in Kerala for a few days and had moved about without security personnel on one day.
Kurien told the investigators he did not use the services of security personnel on that day since he had no official engagements. Witnesses cited by him said they met him at Thiruvalla and Changanacherry. That meant he could not have been at Kumali, where the girl alleged he had raped her. The investigators were satisfied with his alibi.
Since the police did not cite Kurien as an accused, the girl filed a private complaint against him in a magistrate's court. After hearing the testimony of her witnesses, the magistrate issued summons to him. He then moved the high court and, failing to get a favourable verdict, approached the Supreme Court for quashing the magistrate's order.
The apex court asked him to go to the sessions court with a prayer for discharge. The sessions court rejected the prayer. Kurien then went to the high court, which granted his prayer.
The legal path Kurien chose raises some questions. In the criminal revision petition filed in the high court, he did not cite the girl, who was the complainant, as a respondent. The high court ruled in his favour without hearing her. The only respondent in the case was the State of Kerala, which had anyway decided not to prosecute him.
The witnesses who helped Kurien to establish his alibi were not produced in the magistrate's or in the sessions court. Therefore, the complainant's counsel could not cross-examine them.
Kurien's plea for discharge came up in the high court when the main Suryanelli case was virtually lost with the acquittal of all the accused charged with rape. He relied heavily upon the high court's finding that the girl's testimony could not be trusted. With the apex court quashing that high court verdict, its decision in his case stands on questionable ground.
In his television appearances Kurien said political opponents had been raking up the Suryanelli case against him at election time. He had raised this argument in the courts too, and it had passed muster there. However, this time the matter has come up not in the context of an election but in the context of the general awakening on the issue of women's security. Also, it has been brought up by the victim, who was a minor when she was subjected to sexual assault and is fighting for justice 17 years later.
Kurien's name was cleared by investigators and prosecutors both under the Congress-led UDF government and under the CPI-M-led LDF government. However, they was no unanimity among them.
One investigator has said the team leader was keen to save Kurien and did not pursue the evidence against him. Both the girl and Dharmarajan have said police asked them not to mention his name. It has come to light that identification parades were held for the others named by the girl but not for Kurien.
The special prosecutor appointed by the CPI-M-led government wanted Kurien to be prosecuted but the Director General of Prosecution, also appointed by that government, did not. The matter was settled in Kurien's favour at a meeting presided over by Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar, which suggests the decision was essentially political.
All witnesses who reinforced Kurien's alibi except G. Sukumaran Nair, general secretary of the Nair Service Society, have gone back on their statements to police. To make things worse, Dharmarajan has told a channel he took Kurien in his car to the guest house where the girl said he assaulted her.
Their revelations having knocked the bottom out of Kurien's alibi, he is under increasing pressure to step down from the post of deputy chairman and submit to a fresh probe.